Meet the Wisconsin Republicans who love solar
The year was 2010 and Mark Neumann, a Republican former congressman, was running for governor of Wisconsin. He talked all the usual talk about “energy independence” and reducing America’s “dependence on foreign oil.” As a candidate, he was a little strange, though, because his idea of what those phrases mean — unlike those of his competitors — included renewable energy.
To Mark Neumann, something like cap and trade was a liberal boondoggle out to raise taxes and punish business. But renewable energy was 110 percent star-spangled America. “More taxes and more job losses under the guise of environmental protection are not acceptable,” he wrote, at the time, in a press release. “Wisconsin can ‘go green’ without growing government.” Neumann added that he had contacted the Wisconsin Republican Party and its chairman, Reince Priebus, about the terrific things that a focus on renewable energy could do for the GOP platform.
He didn’t win the nomination. Scott Walker, the guy who won that primary, and later, the governorship, promptly busied himself blocking windpower, digging up Wisconsin’s sand to sell to fracking operations, deregulating open-pit mining, and helping the Koch brothers dump their unwanted phosphorus in state waters.
Now, an article in Midwest Energy News shows what Neumann has been up to. He’s still a Republican, and now runs a solar company, SunVest, with his son, Matt, who is president of the Wisconsin Solar Energy Industries Association.
Matt appears to be a chip off the old block. He’s not even sure he believes in climate change, but he agrees with his father that Republicans are missing the boat, big time. Writes Midwest Energy News, about the younger Neumann:
Neumann uses conservative touchstones to describe the state of things. For him, it’s a lack of “liberty” that prevents a property owner from choosing how to power his or her home or business. He said this absence of “energy choice” contradicts Republican tenets, which run strong in a state where the governor, Scott Walker, is favored by the tea party.
“We’re very conservative here in Wisconsin,” Neumann said. “The reality is free market capitalism, the choice to choose how you buy your energy, and how you finance that acquisition, the ability to lower your long-term energy costs — those are all very conservative principles and yet for some reason we’re struggling to adapt.”
Wisconsin has been slow to adopt solar because no one is quite sure yet whether third-party solar — which is one of the cheapest ways to install it — could survive a legal challenge from utilities, who are worried that solar is poaching on their turf. Utilities have been trying to jack up the fees they can charge anyone connected to the grid. If they get their way, they’ll have the highest fees in the Midwest, and they will have eliminated much of the financial incentive to install solar panels in the first place.
The younger Neumann believes in his heart of hearts that things will shake out in favor of solar. State Sen. Robert Cowles, a Republican and chairman of the Energy, Consumer Protection and Government Reform Committee, begs to differ.
“I can tell you, the utilities are vehemently against this,” Cowles said of third-party ownership. “I’m not sure how we would get them to ever accept that. We would have to overwhelm them somehow. I mean, I’m not taking a position on this right now.”
Still, the saga of the family Neumann points to an America that we don’t get to see very often in politics anymore (probably because, like Neumann, it gets flushed out in the primaries). Whether or not that kind of America gets to make a showing at the elections this autumn, it’s interesting to see a glimpse of it in Wisconsin.